Whenever the media covers a high profile case of sexual assault or sexual harassment, there’s a chorus saying the survivor should have gone to the police or their parents. The latest example: the sexual assault allegations in relation to last month’s Labour Party youth camp. Writing anonymously, a survivor explains why such comments are so unhelpful.
Content warning: This post discusses sexual violence and harassment. It may be upsetting to survivors. Please take care.
Today there will be many parents who spent last night worrying about their teenagers and how to keep them safe. It’s a little mentioned fact that when you’re parenting teenagers you’re often also trying to heal wounds from your own teenage-hood.
My heart broke for the teenagers who were victimised at the Labour Party camp. I couldn’t help imagining how excited they must have been at the invitation: to meet Jacinda Ardern and to be around connected adults who wanted to listen to them, to really hear them. Being part of a youth wing of a political party stems from a desire to be the change you hope to see in the world. I’ve been to events like these where I’ve come away feeling like I matter, that my voice is important.
I was also raped when I was 15.
And nothing feels like it rips your voice away more than a sexual assault. When you feel like you might be murdered in that moment, your focus is on survival. The real trial begins after, when you’re told you’re “lucky” because it could have been worse. Then, when the questions start, you wonder just how lucky you were. I was unlucky enough to end up in hospital with a concussion after my assault. This meant I had no choice but to comply with the police becoming involved. And I say comply because that’s what it feels like – you have to submit, whether or not it’s the right thing for you and your situation.
And it’s with that in mind that I question people who are not survivors expressing outrage that the police were not involved immediately in this case. As another survivor private messaged me last night, “Everyone is saying ‘involve the police’. Why? What are they going to do about it?”
We live in a world where even with filmed footage of a rape and a woman screaming NO NO THIS IS RAPE the case won’t necessarily result in a conviction. We live in a world where rape victims must be beaten to a pulp in order to show they “fought enough” and even then….did she really? Maybe she just likes rough sex?
I was 15 when I was asked if I liked it rough, by a policeman who was three times the size of me, who said it as if he was asking me what I’d had for breakfast. A woman policeman was in the room, disinterested, taking notes. My body ached sitting on the cold chair where I’d been transplanted from hospital.
Luckily it was all worth it. My rapist was arrested, jailed. I survived.
Actually, only one of those things is true. I survived. The rest was the fantasy, dreamed up by people who have never had to speak to the police about their rape.
There’s an uncomfortable fact that has to be factored into any discussion about the ‘good’ victims who speak to the police: Reporting of sexual violence in New Zealand is devastatingly low, with only an estimated 9% of incidents ever reported to police.
There is a reason for this – ask any survivor. Sexual violence has an extremely low conviction rate in Aotearoa New Zealand. Only 13% of cases recorded by the police result in a conviction.
So survivors should still speak to the police? For what? Access to the chocolate in the vending machine next to the room they’ll be interrogated in?
In Aotearoa, up to one in three girls will be subject to an unwanted sexual experience by the age of 16. The majority of those incidences would be considered serious, with over 70% involving genital contact. For Māori girls and women the likelihood of sexual violence is nearly twice as high as the general population. Pacific and migrant women are also at statistically greater risk of sexual violence.
How do you think young Māori girls and Pasifika and migrant women feel about going to the police? How high do you think those conviction rates are? Will they get justice?
Young people are statistically at the highest risk of sexual assault; those aged 16-24 are at the highest risk of any age group. Some will go to the police; few if any will find justice. They’ll survive.
And that’s all you can hope for most of the time.
Did I think it was worth going to the police? Was it worth my family being alerted? Was it worth my friends and social circle finding out about the attack?
No. It wasn’t. There were no charges. “Not enough evidence,” despite the fact that I was bruised. I was drunk. And with those five letters it’s all over. You’re not a real victim.
I was lucky enough to have ACC access to counselling and the support of Rape Crisis Wellington, a chronically underfunded organisation. That’s how I’m still alive today.
So when I hear people join a chorus saying the police should have been called, their parents should have been told, they should have released details publicly – I hear a desire to live in a fantasy world. A world where survivors have a shot at justice, a world where parents know how to support their children after an assault, a world where people aren’t going to attack them for being attacked.
I don’t live there – do you?
Until you know where these children will end up, are you really in a position to insist on what they should have done? Are you really in a position to say that after they have been assaulted without consent you will act again without their consent to contact the police, parents, others? For what exactly?
Maybe take the time to put yourself in their shoes. What would you want at 16? What would be your best chance at survival?
Try to imagine those teens’ first day at camp. Try to imagine your parents dropping you off, you so full of hope, full of ideas for a better future. A future where “go to the police” and “tell your parents” isn’t so fraught at best, useless at worst.
Imagine that, and then do something about it. For these kids.
Because they deserve better than the system they’ve got and the people who keep trying to force them into it.
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